Oh blimey, Frank. Give me strength. It sweeps the ceiling, stretches to the walls. Their flat smells dark green, of pine-forest. Their rag-rug that they’d made together, over long dark evenings in the hiss of gaslight smelling of fish-glue, is already piled thick with needles. Oh Frank, be careful – she suffers cruel splinters in small hands and feet. She itches to sweep. On the table a tangle of bauble and string and last year’s burnt-down candles in their burnished claws.
Half-hidden by branches he crouches, stokes the fire. He turns, his face brick-red, eyes shiny. ‘Ada! There you are. At last. Did you get everything – the chestnuts? Oranges? I was starting to worry.’ He rocks back on his heels. ‘Ain’t she a beauty?’
She nods. Skirts round the tree, pulls clear of its raspy tendrils. The scullery is chilly. The sink is piled high with allotment vegetables: bulbous parsnips, carrots, potatoes. Caked in mud; her chilblains sting at the hint of them. Overhanging the draining board, a thick stalk of Brussels sprouts. A pale bird oozes damp on paper. Plucked already, thank God, and drawn. The giblets glisten red-grey-brown in a white bowl. The sight makes Ada heave. She reaches up to put her packages on the windowsill, holds her arms there in front of the glass, fingertips splayed.
Last December the light through this window had flickered blizzard white. She’d spent her days on their bed in the alcove, knitting tiny jackets and boots. They’d all laughed at how he’d wait on her, a precious Dresden doll. He’d found titbits for her, all sorts, langue du chat biscuits, honeycomb and raisins. Anything she could keep down.
Last year he’d dug a path to get to his sister’s house for dinner, leaving her here to doze and read. That was why they had to have them back this year, he said. It was only fair. ‘And it will be jolly, Ada. Do you good, a bit of company. Do us both good. And I’d have thought, by now… You can always talk to her, you know, if there’s things you can’t say to me.’
There’s a tiny space as you go into the flat. He calls it The Hall, has rigged up hooks and a boot-rack. She pushes her way back through the tree, across the linoleum, to hang her coat and scarf, the battered felt hat. She rakes her fingers through her hair. He hadn’t wanted her to have it cut – he said he loved the weight of it, its slow uncoiling as she pulled out the pins – but it’s a blessing now, not to have the bother.
He’s at the table opening cards. ‘My, this robin’s fine,’ he says. ‘Bright red. Though you’d never get more than one on the same branch at once. Too fierce, the little beggars. That’s art for you.’ He makes a list of who the cards are from. It’s proof, isn’t it. That they’re solid. He likes to keep a record.
‘That’s rum.’ He glances over his shoulder at her and puts a postcard back in its envelope. ‘Don’t know why anyone would send anybody something like that. At this time of year.’ He slips it into the drawer under the table.
‘I’ll make a start on these.’ She’s in the armchair by the fire, among the branches, her shins scorched, the stalk of sprouts on newspaper across her knees. She has a paring knife, a bucket for the peelings and a colander at her feet. She leans her head against the back of the chair, eyes shut. Small hands like starfish pat her legs. A child who is learning to walk staggers like a drunk and falls down hard on her bottom. Laughs, and rolls among the pine needles. Ada scoops her up and holds her close.
She hears him whistle through the gap in his front teeth as he hangs the cards on a string. He is trying to move around the room without disturbing her. When he thumps down into his own armchair across from hers, she opens her eyes. He grins. ‘Ah, this is nice, isn’t it?’ He leans forward, elbows on knees, and looks into her face, so close she can feel the warmth of his breath, see the pores on his nose, the sleep dust in the corner of his eye. ‘And guess what?’ he asks. She shakes her head. Peels a sprout, carves a cross in its bottom, drops it in the colander and twists another from the stalk.
‘Downstairs are going to switch on the wireless. You know, for the broadcast of the special service from Cambridge.’ He waits for her to be impressed. She peels another sprout. ‘It’s quite a thing,’ he continues, ‘isn’t it, for people like us? It will be as if we are there, in the chapel. We are truly living in an Age of Miracles. They’ve invited us. And there’ll be tea, and something stronger like as not. I said we’d go—’
‘I’ve too much to do,’ she says.
She could bite it back the minute she’s said it. He slumps in his chair. ‘I can hear it from up here, though.’ She reaches over to stroke his wrist, her touch as soft as a moth’s wing. ‘It will be just as good. We’ll be listening to it together.’
He goes down a good hour before the ceremony of carols is due to start, leaving the tree half-decked. She’s finished the sprouts, washed her hands. The flat feels bigger when he’s gone. Space for little legs to run about, small hands to reach for baubles, mind the candles there, we don’t want a fire—
She should make a start on the parsnips. But she’s bone-weary. The tram to Brixton was so packed she’d had to stand, and she’d spent too many long minutes in the Bon Marché unable to decide on a glass paperweight with a butterfly suspended in it as a gift for Miss Bruce. Was it hideous, for all it cost? She couldn’t afford any more.
Frank is puzzled by Miss Bruce. ‘Why don’t you find a friend closer to your own age? Someone more like us.’
‘Miss Bruce is kind…’ Her voice tails off. Because it isn’t true. Miss Bruce is fierce and clever. Emphatic and insistent. Like no one Ada has ever met. Her apartment is all angles and sharp lines and light, a curved balcony with views of green, over Croydon and beyond. When Ada tries to remember the details of Miss Bruce’s clothes she never can. Just the knowledge of a perfect being, dark and chic, the smell of Turkish cigarettes and sandalwood. Miss Bruce – ‘do call me Sylvia, child’ – pours China tea into cups with no handles made by a woman potter in Vienna, and offers marrons glacés.
This year has seen progress. ‘At last. The Glorious Seventh of May. When do you turn twenty-one, darling?’
‘Next year. But I wouldn’t know who to vote for—’
‘Just as long as you don’t simply vote for the same old patriarchal candidate your husband wants.’ Sylvia Bruce dismisses all husbands, all marriages, with a flick of her sharpened fingernails. Ada bristles. Miss Bruce cannot possibly have any idea—
He likes to work things out for himself, does Frank. He comes in the library, reads the papers – not the Daily Mail, he has no truck with their fawning over that awful Mussolini. He likes practical. He likes kind. He doesn’t trust high-flown.
Ada shivers. She can’t believe there’s been nothing from Miss Bruce. She was sure there would be some kind of message. Miss Bruce was so clear, so certain. She wouldn’t have forgotten.
But after all, wasn’t there— What was it, a card he hadn’t liked, he’d put it away— Where had he— She scrabbles through the contents of the drawer. Here it is. She opens the envelope with trembling fingers. The picture is silvered, cloudy, what on earth – it’s a photograph of a dead baby, its eyes shut, surely no one would be so cruel, not even Sylvia. She looks again. No, that’s all right. It’s just a statue. Rodin’s ‘Thinker’ as a baby. A joke? What does it mean? On the other side, just ‘Happy Xmas 1928. S. Bruce.’ Ada wishes again that she was clever. Miss Bruce lives beyond the understanding of ordinary people. Her Christmas will be spent in sophisticated company, no doubt, not Frank’s sister and a pan of sprouts. She would have sneered at that paperweight, no question.
Ada hugs herself against the evening chill, watches the light disappear. From downstairs the murmur of conversation is punctuated by Frank laughing. Oh my. He used to always roar like that. Before he reined himself in, stopped saying what was in his head, not daring to say, let’s try again. Before Miss Bruce spotted Ada in the library and knocked her off her balance.
Frank laughs, again. Then, a loud click, and a hush as the wireless warms up. Ada returns to her chair by the fire, and holds out the card towards the dwindling flames as if to drop it in. She draws it back. Holds it out again. Then, between the floorboards, through the lino creeps a sound, a sharp sweet echo of a note.
‘Once—’ the voice of an angel, surely, a precious boy, a reminder of every child they still might have ‘—in Royal David’s City…’
The broadcast is interrupted by a low murmur, Frank’s voice as quiet as he can make it. As his footsteps travel back up the stairs, towards her and their too-empty flat, the stubborn knot she has carried at the base of her throat for ten long months dissolves. No longer alone, the tears she has been holding back begin at last to flow.
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